We have a house guest with terrible manners. She sleeps all day, wakes after dark, and heads out, heaven knows where, without a word to us. When our paths cross, she stares at me as if wondering what I’m doing in her world. I meet her eyes, which are curious and challenging at the same time, but I’m always the one who turns away first. I know she comes home before dawn because one night she slid across the skylight over our bed, waking Jack and me with the screech of her nails on the glass.
Did I mention that our visitor is a raccoon?
Don’t panic. I know all the risks. She might have rabies. One bite and we’re dead. She might have roundworms, which can kill a child or an older person if not caught in time. If she moved into our attic, she could chew on the electrical wiring and cause a fire. Now that she’s settled into our chimney, we won’t be able to have a fire in our living room next winter. Since raccoons relieve themselves in the same place most of the time, her urine could eat through our roof. She’s already getting into our garage and scavenging through the trash. I really don’t mind.
Did I mention that she’s had babies?
Our downstairs bathroom has a vent into the chimney, and sometimes I sit there in the dark, listening to the kits. They’re noisy. They burble and chirrup and sound like the young of all mammals: adorable. When they’re big enough to explore the world, we’ll be hosting four or five raccoons struggling to survive by their wits in an environment dominated by human beings. I want them to survive.
Did I mention I anticipate an eventful summer?
I’ve had experience with raccoons before. Another family lived with us in the spring of 1990. The porch off our second-floor bedroom is only about 25 feet from the chimney, so by mid-July, with a little coaxing, the mother raccoon and I had become friends. She’d come when I whistled and take the food I tossed up onto the roof, including a peanut butter sandwich I’d stuffed full of roundworm pills the vet had given me. She trusted me enough to eat while I watched and didn’t mind my observing her and her kits scramble to the ground down a tall pine tree. I heard her scream when an animal killed her under our bedroom window shortly after midnight in late August. I never saw her kits again.
When we talk of a rabies scare, we refer exclusively to our own fear, though the rabies epidemic affected very few human beings. Instead, rabies and distemper wiped out a good portion of the native raccoons, who never knew what hit them. For seven long years, there were too few raccoons to need our hard-to-reach nesting place. When I woke to see that furry body sliding down the glass over my head, I was so delighted, I laughed out loud.
How many second chances do we get in this life?
On warm nights, I’ve been sitting on our porch, watching clouds float across the night sky. Our raccoon emerges from the chimney just after dark, sliding down the TV aerial, which is finally of some use again. She comes to a halt when she notices my presence, then turns and climbs back into the chimney. Then she pokes her head out and gazes at me intently, her ears silhouetted against the stars. We are fully alive to each other. You could do a gymnastics routine on the beam of concentration that stretches between us, and that feeling of connection fills me with pleasure. I have her full attention and she has mine. I wonder what she’s thinking.
I am feeling grateful that we humans are not here on earth alone, but have companions to keep us from dying of loneliness. Inside my house, machines serve me by ringing, or printing, or washing my clothes. Under the moon, this nonhuman creature and I connect in a different way, not for my purposes alone, but soul-to-soul. Though no one would dispute my right to evict her, if I refuse to share this property of mine with her, where could she go? There are no “natural” places left in this town where she could avoid interacting with humans. How can I wash my hands of her when God made the beasts of the earth and “saw that it was good?”
Good, meaning deserving of life. Good, meaning our existence here is incomplete and sterile without the whole of creation. Good, meaning essential to our happiness, to our delight in otherness, to our sense of participation in a magical living process of infinite variety. Better that we learn to take our joy in wild company now than when it is too late to replace all we have destroyed.
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